Full Pull Southern Hinterland of the Northern Rhone

Hello friends. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? (Doesn’t everyone always choose bad first?)

Okay, the bad news: our allocation of the 2014 vintage of Charles Helfenbein’s Brezeme is 25% lower than our allocation of his ’13, and max allocations of that ’13 ended up being I think just 2 or 3 bottles. Gulp.

The good news: to help mitigate the pain, Helfenbein’s Seattle importer offered us a similarly-sized stash of his Syrah from the opposite bank of the Rhone, in Saint-Julien-en-Saint-Alban. And because of some bureaucratic snafu, that SJeSA had to get the more generic Cotes-du-Rhone label, which means we can offer it for exactly the same tag as the Brezeme.

The wonderful Eric Texier (whose wines we have offered in the past) is the most prominent producer putting Brezeme and SJeSA in bottle. Think of him as the established player, and Charles Helfenbein as the young whippersnapper (a nice review from Eric Asimov in the New York Times back in 2013 helped on the buzz front). Helfenbein generally picks a few weeks after Texier, so his Syrahs are a bit riper, a bit more approachable in their youth.

As far as I can tell, up until this year, there was only one importer bringing in Helfenbein. They were New York based, and so the only places to purchase the wines were excellent shops like Chambers Street and Astor. For what it’s worth, when I’ve seen east coast parcels of these wines, I’ve always seen them at $24 or above, and usually closer to $28. Fortunately, we now have a direct-import partner bringing this wine straight to Seattle, which helps explain why our pricing today is so competitive.

2014 Charles Helfenbein Brezeme

Of course, I would argue that even at $28, this is undervalued wine. It’s only because nobody has heard of Brezeme, and because it still has the price-dampening Cotes du Rhone on the label, that this wine costs what it does. If Brezeme becomes its own AOC, I fully expect pricing to look more like Cornas soon after. But that’s another story for another day. Today we can glory in funky Northern Rhone Syrah for twenty bucks.

Brezeme is kind of the little Rhone appellation that could. As you can see on this lovely hand-drawn Rhone map, Brezeme takes up the northwest quadrant of the corner formed by the intersection of the Rhone and Drome rivers. That basically makes Brezeme the southern hinterland of the Northern Rhone.

The vaaaaaaast majority of wines labeled Cotes du Rhone come from the Southern Rhone, and are predominantly Grenache. Brezeme CdR is in the Northern Rhone, and so this bottle is 100% Syrah. And in fact, I suspect at some point in the next decade or two, Brezeme will drop the CdR and will just become Brezeme AOC (reading a series of French websites garble-translated through Google Translate leads me to believe this, so take that with a grain of salt).

Grown on limestone soils and raised in big 400-liter oak casks (mostly neutral, some new) for 18 months, this offers a wonderful Syrah nose, terrifically meaty with its notes of bacon fat and charcuterie. There are threads of smoke and brine in supporting roles, and all of those savory goodies swirl around a core of blackberry fruit. This is the plumper, the fuller-bodied of the two Syrahs, offering real generosity and succulence. The finish is all salty umami goodness, like a dollop of miso paste to invite the next sip or next bite of food.

2013 Charles Helfenbein Cotes du Rhone

Brezeme is on the eastern bank of the Rhone, and Saint-Julien-en-Saint-Alban is directly across the river on the west bank (location here). Despite the proximity as the crow flies, the soil types are completely different: limestone in Brezeme, granite in SJeSA.

Otherwise, the two Syrahs are treated pretty much identically, so the differences are all related to terroir and to vintage. Both wines are savory/funky in different ways. If the Brezeme is predominantly about meat, this one is predominantly about mineral and about brackish notes of saltwater and nori, beautifully complementing fruit tones of huckleberry and floral tones of violet. This offers real inner-mouth perfume, and a wonderful kick of cracked black pepper spice. Texturally, this is a marvel of density without a shred of excess weight. It’s perfectly proportioned, palate-staining, northern Rhone Syrah, seemingly carved out of one of the slabs of granite on this bank of the Rhone. What a wonderful wine to complement the Brezeme, and what an impressive pair of wines to display Helfenbein’s skill with Syrah.

Please limit order requests to 12 bottles total (mix and match as you like), and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. The wines should arrive in a week or two, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.

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